Nashville duo Granville Automatic sings about city’s ‘Hidden History’

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Granville Automatic (Photo: Alexandra Arielle)

The houses that line Music Row are the birthplaces of countless legendary songs. But well before the songwriters moved in, this Nashville neighborhood had its own stories to tell.

Nashville singer-songwriters Elizabeth Elkins and Vanessa Olivarez – who perform as the duo Granville Automatic – know this as well as anyone.

“Tiny Televisions” is the title track of the duo’s new collection of songs, all inspired by Nashville’s lost history and overlooked landmarks.

Elkins and Olivarez first knew the building at 1400 Eighth Avenue South, for example, as the former headquarters of Sony Records.

But that building began its life in 1916 as the Little Sisters Home for the Poor, and in the mid-20th century, it became a series of nursing homes. The duo learned about this past through a conversation with the property’s developer, and were immediately inspired to write a song, sung from the perspective of a past resident.

“I’ll do my time counting sheep and seconds,” Olivarez sings on the track. “Tiny televisions in the chapel on the floor/ I used to mind the static/ I don’t feel it anymore.”

Another song, “Getaway Car,” is about the 1977 drug bust at Waylon Jennings’ 17th Avenue studio. “Opryland” takes listeners to the exit on Briley Parkway where Dottie West had a fatal car crash on her way to the Grand Ole Opry House.

Their work is vivid and often haunting, with lyrical precision honed by decades on the job. But they’re also uniquely experienced at drawing inspiration from the past.

‘Treasure hunting’ for inspiration

“Tiny Televisions” is actually Granville Automatic’s second album to explore Nashville’s past, following 2018’s “Radio Hymns.” They also retold Civil War stories on 2015’s “An Army Without Music.”

That album was recorded in New York City, and both songwriters were immediately swept up in the rich history of their surroundings.

“There were so many stories to sort of uncover in (New York) that we just got really excited about the idea of treasure hunting,” Olivarez says.

“I sort of got this idea in my head, looking around Nashville and seeing all of these places being destroyed before our very eyes, and history just being forgotten about and bulldozed without a thought. And I said, ‘Why don’t we focus on the city where we’re living? …Because soon, with all the history disappearing, we’re not going to like to be here.'”

Other parts of “Tiny Televisions” explore places and people that are already long gone.

“Ice Cream” remembers Sarah Estell, a free Black woman who owned a downtown ice cream shop prior to the start of the Civil War. And “Hell’s Half Acre” is inspired by the poor neighborhood that once surrounded Nashville’s Capitol Hill, and was razed in the 1950s to make way for Robertson Parkway and Bicentennial Mall State Park.

Even though these songs are rooted in a real past, listeners shouldn’t falsely assume they’re history lessons set to a melody. “Acre” might mention the “West Side boys renaming the streets” – as officials changed Line Street to Jo Johnston Avenue in 1900 – but at its heart, the song is pure emotion, and the sentiment is evergreen.

“In the beginning with the stars in your eyes, it’s all covered in rhinestones, all covered in lies/ thought I was what you wanted, but that’s the story you told/ guess that’s what happens babe, when things get old.”

It’s a blend that comes naturally to them, Elkins says. In the course of their research, “You start seeing just how universal human emotion really is, regardless of the circumstance, and I think you do start putting your own experience in it. It’s difficult to separate the two.”

A book of ‘Hidden History’

Along with co-author Brian Allison, Elkins and Olivarez delve even deeper in an accompanying book, “Hidden History of Music Row.” 

Its scope stretches back to Demonbreun Street’s namesake, fur trader Timothy Demonbreun (who had a “Cheatin’ Heart” of his own, Elkins writes), through the heyday haunts of country’s outlaws, and the past lives of landmarks like Ocean Way studio. 

The coronavirus pandemic may have dashed Granville Automatic’s tour plans, but it’s allowing them to jump right back into research for a new book. It might be best to keep that work and the road separate — for “Hidden History,” they weren’t so lucky.

“We had this crazy routing,” Elkins says, recalling their last tour. “We had to leave D.C. at 5 a.m. to get to the Atlanta show. The book was due 10 days later, and I really thought on that drive somewhere around the North Carolina border that the band was done (laughs). But we made it, somehow.”

But writing other people’s stories through songs has been “super liberating,” she adds. 

“And that’s part of what makes it endless. We love being in this project, because we keep getting more and more ideas of what we want to do, and what perspective we want to write from.”

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